School Autonomy Controversy

September 18, 1990

Ever since Chicago decentralized its 540 schools, educational "empowerment" of local communities has been in fashion. Yet the Baltimore City school board, having seen the administrative pendulum swing back and forth over two decades, chose to decentralize incrementally rather than opt for wholesale changes. It decided to select 20 pilot schools as testing grounds for local control as of next fall.

This may seem like a timid approach but makes sense because so many things are in flux right now. Superintendent Richard C. Hunter's contract expires next year. Meanwhile, the state education department is about to implement a system of accountability which will present new challenges to all Baltimore City schools, regardless of whether they have local autonomy.

These good intentions, alas, are now in danger of turning into the school system's latest public relations fiasco. Many parents and community groups are angry because they feel they have been ignored in the decentralization planning process. Thundered Jo Ann Robinson, speaking for the Western High School Parent-Teacher Association: "We as parents find ourselves dealing with the same old problems that we very much resent having to face once again -- lousy communication, a yawning gap between school system rhetoric about the importance of parent involvement and school system practices which provoke parent protest, and the token nature of the involvement opportunities which are presented to us."

This is the kind of criticism that many parents and community groups have repeatedly lodged against the school system. Yet bureaucrats at North Avenue -- some arrogant, some well-meaning -- never seem to learn. They continue to speak with forked tongues, claiming to encourage parent involvement but then not seeking community participation. Yet no plan that aims to restructure the basic way in which schools operate can succeed without community awareness and support.

The school board is scheduled to vote on the decentralization plan Thursday. The whole matter has been handled so ineptly that we think a postponement is in order. Community concerns about the plan must be satisfactorily addressed. Otherwise, as with so many previous initiatives, the whole decentralization effort may fail.

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